The Sassi Town of Matera, Italy

Leaving Puglia (Apulia), we crossed into Basilicata, a rugged, wild and sparsely populated region, to visit one of Italy’s highlights, Matera.  

The town of Matera has a secret.

This is the ancient cave dwelling town of Matera. Hidden behind these facades are caves, called sassi (plural). The soft tuffa stone allowed for the caves to be easily enlarged.


The secret sassi. You’d never know that caves were behind those walls.

To visit the sassi (caves) of Matera requires a detour off the Rome-Florence-Venice tourist route. Set atop two rocky gorges, it is considered to be one of the world’s oldest towns. The caves behind Matera’s facades have been inhabited continuously for 7,000 years. 

In the 8th century the caves housed Benedictine monks and fresco paintings from this period survive. An ingenuous system of canals collected rain water into caverns and controlled the flow of sewage.  

The large church at the highest point in town is a cave church.


The natural caves and grottoes were lived in and adapted over the ages. It’s easy to envision the caves because the city is surrounded by cave-ridden hills. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was filmed in the vicinity of Matera.


Matera’s elevation is 1330′


“A prosperous town in the 1600s with elegant churches and lavish palazzi, new town Matera grew up with their backs to the caves in an attempt to block out the shameful poverty the sassi represented.” 

Lonely Planet Guidebook

Openings were bricked up and eventually the cave was totally enclosed by additions making the mountain look like the hill town it is today.



These doors lead to cave homes.


After centuries of decay, a surge of population moved to the area and the poor started occupying caves that were without running water and were intended for animal shelter. 50% of the town’s population was living in miserable poverty and the infant mortality rate was 50%. 

The situation was brought to the public’s attention with the publication of Carlo Levi’s book Christ Stopped at Ebolí. Officials were forced to intervene and approximately 15,000 inhabitants were forcibly removed from the caves and relocated in the late 1950s.

In 1993 the sassi of Matera were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“Ironically the town’s lack of development due to years of misery has transformed it into Basilicata’s leading tourist attraction.”

Lonely Planet Guidebook

Many of the crumbling buildings have been abandoned, but some have been restored and house boutique hotels, restaurants and homes.



To visit the sassi (caves) of Matera requires a detour off the Rome-Florence-Vencice tourist route.


In real time we are alive and well (actually Steve’s been sick for a week). We have been covering a lot of ground lately – Rome, Istanbul, and now, Israel. It may take a few extra posts to get current.  

Coming next time from Meet You in the Morning:  A Return to Rome

Thank you for reading my travel blog. I really appreciate the comments and emails. 

8 responses to “The Sassi Town of Matera, Italy

  1. Thank you for the information on a part of Italy I knew nothing about! Very interesting history. Will add this to my next trip to Italy. And, yes, do take care with your health.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you make it. We wanted to spend a month in Sicily as well and I’d return to Lecce area – or other small towns off the tourist trail, but we needed to get a move on. I hope there will be a next time.


  2. Looks like a worthwhile region of Italy to visit! My husband and I are living in Malta for a few more months, and while there are a lot of heritage sites and cultural activities to keep us busy here, we’d love to get back to Italy too. Thanks for yet more inspiration to explore this part of the country.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s still so many regions of Italy we would like to explore. Staying put for several months would help! I would love to live in Malta! Happy travels!


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